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‘You see these other boats, they are like a Renault, Alex? He’s brought a Rolls Royce.’

‘You see these other boats, they are like a Renault, Alex? He’s brought a Rolls Royce.’

Hugo Boss VII is the boat Alex Thomson dreamed of and has caused a sensation already on the pontoon of the Bassin Paul Vatine in Le Havre. His co-skipper is Neal McDonald, a veteran of 7 Whitbread and Volvo Ocean Races and America’s Cups, the Hugo Boss performance manager, and the man Thomson trust to tell him to ease of or shut up. They talk cockpits, foils, g-force and bringing a Rolls Royce to a Renault convention. 

Why did you choose Neal as co-skipper?

Alex Thomson: Neal is our performance manager ,who has tonnes of experience, albeit in a slightly different world and it made sense for him to come on the boat and see how it works. Apart from the boat performance, he can understand my performance as well. He will say in a second that if we’d wanted to win the race I wouldn’t have chosen him, but I disagree with that. 

But our aim is to finish the race and get enough data to inform the next decisions. 

Neal McDonald: Our goal is the Vendée, this is a stepping stone for us, and it’s a lot to ask one person to sail for two or three weeks and take all the information in. It’s a learning process and me being here is hopefully going to help that process. It’s also a great opportunity for me. 

AT: With the last boat I used to irritate the boys where after the Vendée I could be lying a bunk and shout, ‘there’s a bit of weed on the rudder!’ And they would go, ‘how do you know that?’ But I know and they’d find a bit of weed. This has got new noises, the creaks, the groaning, it takes few weeks to just not be scared of it all, but that’s slowly going to grow into being used it and then you’re really get to be part of the boat. 

Will it be hard not pushing for victory?

AT: It’s not hard, no, not after last time. It was funny last time, it was almost exactly the same, we weren’t ready to go and push the boat really hard. We’re much more ready this time. We’ve sailed a couple of miles under 4,000. But we decided on the last one to take the slow, safe route, in theory. They (his rivals) were zooming out to the west and round a low pressure, whereas we went to Ushant and then went upwind to Finisterre and then what happened, happened (a capsize and helicopter rescue). 

I wouldn’t even say there was expectation, my hope is we finish. (He pauses and then cannot help himself) And if we get a chance to have a bit of fun with some of the other boats then I hope we’re on pace. 


NM: My money would be on Charal. We watch these boats and I’m very impressed by the way they’ve tamed the beast, because they are beasts. We’re on the bottom of the ladder and they are half way up it. You need time to tame them. There’s a fine balance between pushing it and not breaking it and all the little tweaks that mean you get to the bottom of things quickly.

Other skipper describe doing 17 knots and then watching Charal flying past them at 27, and checking their instruments because they can’t believe it, are you doing those speeds? 

AT: We do 30 knots in 18 knots of wind. 

Is it a bigger step change in technology that we’ve seen before? 

AT: I feel that if you imagine where the previous generations of boats were, our last boat was at the top of that pile, so, I think maybe we’ve had a shorter distance to jump and although it’s a different sensation and definitely more of a flying sensation, it hasn’t been completely alien. 

I feel like we were up and flying pretty much straight away, our first two sessions out were a bit scary, but it only took two to manage it better. 

Charal is flying high, and I think we can fly high as well, I think a lot of us can fly high. But the higher you fly the harder you come down. 

Do you think you need a year to get to grips with these new boats as people are saying about Charal?

NM: You still have to use that year well because every sailing day is probably two days on the dock. 

AT: The record is 12 and a half days (13 days 7 hours 36 minutes and 46 seconds; by Jean-Pierre Dick and Yann Eliès on St Michel-Virbac in 2017). With those same conditions, I’d be surprised if these new boats, well, Charal anyway, couldn’t do it in 10. 

I got to the Cape of Good Hope in 17-18 days in the last Vendée. That was the same time as Orange II (the trimaran, for their Jules Verne Trophy record in 2005). It depends on the weather, particularly for the trip down the Atlantic, but in terms of performance difference, this boat compared to Hugo Boss VI in flat water, we see between 20 and 30% improvement, which when you’re doing 20 knots is 4 knots. . 

NM: But you can’t just relate that to being 20% quicker round the world because there so many other times when you’re going to be the same. 

AT: The waves equalise everything. In the flatwater you see the big speed differences, in the waves we’ll all become much more equal. Which could end up leading to big differences in routing; if we need less wind in flatwater then you might sail longer distances to get there. Charal averaged 27 knots over a mile and a half in the Défi Azimut speed event. And the second boat, PRB or Sam (Davies, Initiative Cœur) I think, was 24. I’m very impressed and how they’ve (Charal) come from where they were a year ago to where they are now. 

Are you loading pressure on Charal?

AT: No, I’m not, genuinely not. I’ve got of respect for them. When we turned up here and we saw Paprec (they broke a port foil during delivery), we were really sad because we all have to go through this stuff, broken foils and upside down boats, we all know how hard it is and we’re just sad not to have another competitor. 

Alex, In 2012 you said that you were becoming more like a Formula 1 team, and the skipper represented about 20% of the race, what percentage is it now? 

AT: I’d say it’s becoming more technical, more team-based. 

NM: When somebody from outside the sport looks at it, they see the skipper driving the car. But I doubt Lewis Hamilton spends a lot of time in the design process, so you have to separate out the guy who starts the race and drives the boat to the end and Alex, who’s been involved in all the concepts of the boat. It’s about the compromises between reliability and speed. The skipper has to decide and say: “I’m prepared to take a bit more of that risk.”

AT: But it’s guided by the team. 

But another way of looking at it is, forget about the race part, a big part of it is getting to that start line in the right condition having made the right choices at the right time and involved the right people. And that is a team effort. 

How long have you know each other?

AT: My twin sister and Neal know each other from the Volvo (Ocean Race) days, but we didn’t really know each other until he came onboard for a year before the last Vendée (2016). It’s great for someone like me to have someone like Neal, older and who I’ve got lots of respect for, who can tell me to shut up or we shouldn’t do this. I’m always pushing, trying stuff, I don’t have the naval architecture background that he has, I don’t have the same maths ability. We’ve got a really strong team in all areas now. What your programme is, your training, who you’re working with; if you get that wrong I don’t think you can recover from it.

Favourite thing about the Transat Jacque Vabre?

NM: You better ask me in two or three weeks time. 

AT: The caipirinhas! It’s the perfect starting race for us, but I probably wish we’d started earlier now, and launched the boat three or four months earlier. We’ve done 4,000 miles but we haven’t pushed the boat. Now, we need to get the adrenaline going, fire in the blood, put the hammer down and see what happens. 

What’s the coolest thing about the boat?

NM: When I first saw the drawings and Alex’s concept, I thought, ‘woh! That’s radical’. But I sit here now and it feels kind of normal and I’m looking at the other boats and thinking actually they’re radical. It’s different, we have people peering at it and saying, ‘well, where are the winches?’ They’ve got no idea.  

I’ve come from a background where you stand on deck for months going round the world, your face gets completely battered, eyes peeled back, red raw from start to finish. And to go from that to a situation where you can be making decisions and not be soaking wet, go down a wave and not have all the water in your face, I think we probably had it wrong. And in a single-handed scenario there is no question that there will be all these other guys at the end of the Vendée thinking, ‘I should have gone down that path.’ 

What’s the biggest differences to other new boats?

NM: The cockpit is the most obvious, but our foil choices are very different to everybody else. We made some big gambles, which were the cockpit, the energy - the electric engine and solar panels - and the foils. The best thing is, I heard somebody on the pontoon telling their friends, ‘you see these other boats, they are like a Renault, Alex? He’s brought a Rolls Royce.’

Jason Carrington, who built the boat, is an artist. The silver isn’t a stuck on logo, that’s silver carbon. 

What so different about the foils? 

The orientation and when they’re pulled up they’re very high. It’s a bit of a gamble because when you have them up very high they’re less stable. But on the other hand you have the possibility to bring (them) in, which could be quite important on some parts (of the race). We’re locked into that decision that was made on the foils eight or nine months ago. You’d have to be very wrong to modify it because the deck is built around it. The die is cast. Cards on the table. 

And can you see everything you need to from the (enclosed) cockpit? 

AT: I have better vision in here. I can see the jib anytime I want to without wearing goggles, without using a torch. We did 1,600 miles and we’ve got two cameras on the stanchions looking forward and it’s the first time in my life and we can always see forward. 

NM: It’s the first boat I’ve been on where you can see under the jib and under the spinnaker. Most other boats, as soon as you heel over you’ve only got vision from a quarter of the boat. 

AT: It is warm. When I sailed from England to here, I was in a T-shirt. 

NM: I was thinking, ‘oh, I need the breeze on the back of my neck’, there is a lot of getting used to. But if you started two people afresh, one in this regime and one in another, the one who is not being hosed the whole time is going to do better. 

AT: And just not having to wear five kilos of kit that becomes 6 or 7 when it’s wet, imagine that walking around, how much less energy will you have at the end.

So, your boat is much more comfortable than the previous generation? 

AT: No! In terms of overall comfort this is way worse, how you’re flying, you go up and you come down so hard. We went through 1.5 Gs (G-Force) from Portsmouth to here and we were taking it easy. 

I read that 45,000 hours of work went into the construction of the new boat? 

Yes, about that from conception to construction 

How many peoople do you have in the team?

AT: About 25; split 15 in the technical team, 10 in the office. We’re lucky, we’ve got a good budget. 

So, you made the boat you wanted?

Yes, we made what we wanted. And making it with someone like Jason (Carrington, the boatbuilder)  he has no compromise. So, it was a bit more expensive than we thought.